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Tumultuous week leaves Washington trying to rebuild after title game loss, coach departure

Huskies face uncertain future with DeBoer's departure to Alabama, likely roster upheaval

By TIM BOOTH, AP Sports Writer
Published: January 13, 2024, 2:15pm

SEATTLE — In five days, Washington went from the precipice of its first national title in more than three decades to a program in shambles.

The championship game — lost to Michigan.

Its head coach — gone to Alabama.

Its roster — many players headed to the NFL draft, others already saying they’re headed to the transfer portal, including the presumptive next quarterback.

What was as a devastating week for Washington came to a conclusion on Friday when Kalen DeBoer left the school to take the head job at Alabama and the chance at being Nick Saban’s replacement with the Crimson Tide.

DeBoer walked away from the potential of a massive new contract with the Huskies for the opportunity of leading one of the premier programs in the country with resources and cachet that new Washington athletic director Troy Dannen couldn’t match.

But by doing so, DeBoer left a program facing an uncertain future and major challenges headed to the Big Ten starting next season with a roster that could be picked apart by the time a new coach is in place.

As edge rusher Zion Tuputola-Fetui posted on social media on Friday, “Sometimes we have to be reminded it’s all a business.”

“We are sad to see him leave and we did all that we could to keep Kalen at UW,” Dannen said in a statement Friday night.

It’s hard to find the downside in a 14-1 season that ended with playing for a national title. Even into the early moments of the fourth quarter of Monday’s 34-13 loss to Michigan, there were hopes that Washington could put together one more comeback and win the school’s first title since 1991.

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But the success of the season raised DeBoer’s profile to the point of being on Alabama’s short list when Saban decided to step away. Throw in that Dannen is new in Seattle — he was hired in October — and it created a circumstance where DeBoer leaving for a premier job was a possibility.

None of that could have been expected when DeBoer was hired by former AD Jen Cohen and inherited a 4-8 program. The sudden turnaround of the past two years created rabid optimism from fans who hoped that DeBoer would be the next version of Don James, who regularly would have Washington in the national conversation.

Instead, he’s headed for the Southeastern Conference, and Washington’s pending move to the Big Ten appears to be facing massive tests for whoever takes over next.

The exodus after Washington played for a national title was going to include countless players with pro futures. And it has with the likes of Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan, Bralen Trice and Dillon Johnson all declaring for the NFL draft. The Huskies won’t have Michael Penix Jr., their Heisman Trophy runner-up quarterback, either.

It didn’t take long after the DeBoer news broke for some important pieces to Washington’s success this season to announce their plans to enter the transfer portal. And some of Washington’s future is now unknown, with expected reinforcements from the portal saying their commitment is now reopened. That includes quarterback Will Rogers, who was expected to take over for Penix, linebacker Ethan Barr and tight end Tre Watson.

The easiest way for Washington to stop any potential flood of departures or decommitments and attempt to build on this season would be rapidly filling the opening. The likes of Arizona’s Jedd Fisch, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and Kansas’ Lance Leipold will be floated as external options. Ryan Grubb will be an obvious in-house choice if he doesn’t follow DeBoer. JaMarcus Shephard should get similar consideration.

But less than a week removed, it’s a far different place from where Washington expected to be when walking off the field in Houston.

“We have one of the best head coaching jobs in all of college football, with our recent success, our upcoming entry into the premier intercollegiate athletics conference, the Big Ten, our passionate supporters and fanbase, and a world-class university,” Dannen said.

It just won’t be under DeBoer’s watch.